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Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities

Constellations, Issue 5

Adlina Binte Ashar

Jun 30, 2020 | Articles

The word “interdisciplinary” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “of or pertaining to two or more disciplines or branches of learning”, and has become something of a buzzword in academic circles. With universities opening up new schools that feature the merger of two or more disciplines, the interest in interdisciplinary studies is arguably growing stronger. Interdisciplinarity is often be characterised by two main forms; soft interdisciplinarity and hard interdisciplinarity. Soft interdisciplinary research, which is commonly practised in the School of Humanities, is when an expert in one field draws on concepts or methods from other disciplines, applying them in their own research. Alternatively, they might bring their skills learnt from their discipline and apply it  to new contexts and new materials. This work is often performed independently. Hard interdisciplinary research, on the other hand, combines the expertise of multiple disciplines, often requiring the collaboration of one or more experts in each field.

Professor KK Luke, tells Constellations that the overlap of concepts across disciplines is organic and that there is a certain degree of arbitrariness in the ways in which the academic disciplines have become discrete and separate entities: “Most significant issues, issues of any kind of significance to peoples’ lives”, he says, “tend to be cross-disciplinary”. He cites climate change as an example. Although the role of physics and chemistry in global climate change cannot be ignored, researchers also need to know how society has impacted the climate. By looking at one problem from multiple perspectives, we can holistically develop comprehensive solutions to the problems that the world faces.

The Interdisciplinary Graduate School champions clusters like Sustainable Earth, Secure Community, and Healthy Society that enable graduates to carry out research under multiple supervisors from different disciplines. Within NTU’s School of Humanities, interdisciplinary research clusters such as the Green Humanities, Digital Humanities, Medical Humanities and Gender Studies encourage teams of professors to come together to explore new fields of research. Medical Humanities, for example, draws on researchers from literature, linguistics, philosophy, and history in order to understand the ways in which culture influences our understanding of health and sickness and can benefit medical education and practice. Skills in close reading, ethnography, and discourse analysis can help us to better understand the experience of suffering and illness.

Assistant Professor Michelle Chiang (English) began her foray into interdisciplinary studies when she was an undergraduate. She developed an interest in psychology during the time she was studying for her BA (Hons) in English Literature since psychoanalysis is part of the syllabus. Prof Chiang reveals to Constellations that in the field of palliative care, medical practitioners rarely place emphasis on their patients’ emotional and mental experiences. This is why she currently studies literary texts written by people facing terminal illness about their experience of time. Her research is an example of soft interdisciplinary research but is also of medical significance since palliative care is a very important and challenging field of medical practice.

Assistant Professor Ting Chun Chun from the Chinese programme is currently studying physical spaces or locations. Her research involves looking at how a geographical location is given a sense of space by making connections with the history, culture and people associated with it. She sees this project as an intermingling between various disciplines such as architecture, geography, history and literature. When asked about the possibility of co-teaching modules in the future, she states that she would love to work with an urban geographer to show that cities are architectural and urban marvels, and possess an important identity in literature, culture and history. Prof. Ting also teaches a film module and points out that when conducting classes, she often has to switch gears between giving the students contextual knowledge of the issue under investigation and the nuances of film studies.

Dr. Melvin Chen (Philosophy) integrates philosophy with the latest developments in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Dr. Chen tells Constellations that although he is first and foremost a philosopher, he hopes to “pose questions, challenge assumptions, perhaps even irritate a number of philosophers and AI researchers, though always in service to the truth.”. He does not believe that we should be obsessed with carving out the different disciplines into distinct domains. This is because a fluid continuum exists between our disciplines that catalyse some very necessary interdisciplinary research.

But how do AI and Philosophy come together? Dr. Chen stresses that because AI “remains on relatively uncertain terrain, it has to be guided by the use of hypotheses and concepts”, which is where Philosophy plays a pivotal role. With the rapid integration of AI into our daily lives, Dr. Chen believes that important moral questions that distinguish between right and wrong will inevitably be raised. For example, self-driving cars or robotic food and beverage servers that threaten to replace humans in the workplace are just a few of the many AI developments that raise important moral questions.

Assistant Professor Fang Xiaoping, a historian in the Chinese programme, combines medical studies and history to educate audiences about barefoot doctors in China.  His first monograph is called Barefoot Doctors and Western Medicine in China. “I was born in China, and trained in History, so I am familiar with the history of China,” he tells Constellations. He started working on his book in 2002 and spent 10 gruelling years investigating Western medicine while speaking to barefoot doctors in China before finally publishing it in 2012. “This book is of interest to readers of Chinese History, Medicine, Anthropology and Sociology,” he explains. Prof. Fang used his expertise in History to educate audiences about medical progress in China.

In terms of hard interdisciplinary research, Assistant Professor Lim Ni Eng, a linguist in the Chinese programme, has embarked on a project with Professor KK Luke that aims to make a real difference to society. Whereas soft interdisciplinary studies is primarily a self-learning process that is often part of the natural pursuit of knowledge, Prof. Lim and Prof. Luke collaborate with doctors in Singapore, applying their knowledge in interactional linguistics to the medical world. They carry out projects in the urology and ophthalmology clinics at Tan Tock Seng Hospital that deliver medical services to mostly elderly patients. What might be the issues that such projects can attempt to resolve? One example is that doctors regularly face resistance from elderly patients and need to convince patients to allow them to carry out invasive diagnostic tests that the elderly might not feel comfortable with. At the ophthalmology clinic, old folks who have Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD) are likely to reject treatments that involve putting a needle in their eye during consultations. Most old folks reject these treatments and refuse to allowing doctors to using their medical knowledge to improve their lives. Prof. Lim and Prof. Luke record doctor-patient consultations and thoroughly analyse them in order to help improve patient outcomes.

However, this example of hard interdisciplinary research does not just end at the boundary between linguistics and medicine. This interdisciplinary endeavour also involves the discipline of education since these recordings can also be used to teach trainee doctors at Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine. These recordings are used to simulate real-life conversations between patient and doctor, so that trainee doctors will be fully equipped before they start their career.

However, interdisciplinary study also comes with its own set of challenges. When two individuals from different disciplinary backgrounds have opposing viewpoints, it is crucial that they learn to negotiate the interdisciplinary terrain together without pride or prejudice. Since all professionals are highly passionate about what they have do, seeing eye-to-eye with individuals trained in other fields is often a challenge at first. How can this obstacle be overcome? Prof. Lim suggests, “If professors take a leap of faith, and focus on the key question of the subject matter that is of interest to all, interdisciplinary research can truly progress. In interdisciplinary studies, two or more different disciplines have to surge forward, without compromising on their own disciplinary ethos while truly respecting differing viewpoints. The main aim is to reach the final goal of the study, together.”

Although a foreign domain to some, interdisciplinary studies is an prime opportunity for new and engaging research and education because it takes a holistic approach that is informed by a variety of viewpoints from different disciplines. With the global push towards well-rounded education with knowledge and awareness about various global issues, interdisciplinary studies prepare us all to be resourceful with the available information, in order to achieve the best possible outcome.